Now I Know Why African American Actors Want Us To Stop Calling Films “Black Movies”
A couple of months ago I attended a screening of “Baggage Claim” here in New York which featured a Q&A with the actors in the film and director David E. Talbert immediately following the viewing. As the discussion took off, a great deal of the chatter centered on the idea that “Baggage Claim” was not a “black movie,” despite having an all-black cast — save for the hilarious flight attendant side-kick of Jill Scott — but rather a romantic comedy and should be referred to as such.
As I listened to the lengthy explanation I internally rolled my eyes, thinking why are we always trying to run away from our blackness and fit into the mainstream? But after seeing the reviews that rolled out for “The Best Holiday” in its opening weekend, I can finally say I get it.
I should preface this entire article by letting you know “The Best Man” is near and dear to my heart. I grew up watching the movie obsessively and fantasized that the experiences they had would be what my life would be like (the good parts at least) when I became an adult. Despite the sequel just coming out on Friday, I’ve already seen it twice. And I’ve watched the original flick four times this week alone. It would be an understatement to say I wanted “The Best Man Holiday” to win in its opening weekend; and it did. For obsessive fans like me, the numbers this sequel did 14 years after it’s original debut likely weren’t surprising, but as I’ve read in reviews over and over again this weekend, it is apparently still shocking that (a) black people go to the movies, (b) black people like to see themselves on-screen when they go to the movies, (c) Tyler Perry is not the only writer/producer/director who can draw black audiences, (d) a movie featuring all black people doesn’t have to be about “black stuff.”
I’ll focus on that last point first as I examine USA Today’s embarrassing faux paus this weekend. Yesterday, the newspaper wrote a review acknowledging “The Best Man Holiday’s” stellar box office performance which read, “’Holiday’ Nearly Beat ‘Thor’ as Race-Themed Films Soar.” Keeping in mind that I’ve seen this film twice, I sat for all of 0.2 seconds trying to figure out the race theme being referred to before I realized it was nothing more than the fact that the movie had an all-black cast. Looking at the headline alone, one would get the picture that “Best Man” was the sequel to “12 Years a Slave” if he didn’t have half a brain. Thankfully, USA Today found their other half when Twitter went in on them for their ridiculous word choice and they changed their headline to “‘Holiday’ Nearly Beats ‘Thor’ as Ethnically Diverse Films Soar.” I still could’ve done without the “ethnically diverse” reference there, but all I’ll say to that is you have to crawl before you walk and this was indeed a baby step.
Aside from that misstep, something else that rubbed me the wrong way over and over, and unfortunately, over again was the fact that every single review I read had to reference Tyler Perry when critiquing “Best Man.” Now I’m no anti-Perry radical, but I know the cinematic excellence of Malcolm D. Lee far surpasses anything Tyler Perry has been able to do. The two aren’t even in the same category in terms of comedy, particularly if we’re bringing Madea into the discussion. And though I could handle a comparison to “Why Did I Get Married?” because there are similar elements, when blanket statements like “Best Man Holiday is expected to play primarily to African-Americans, similar to Tyler Perry’s pics,” I get frustrated. Tyler Perry appeals to a particular segment of the African American community and while those fans would likely enjoy the “Best Man Holiday” all the same, the crowd that favors the latter would likely not have the same affinity for a TP production. A more accurate comparison would have been Will Packer’s “Think Like a Man,” the similarities between which some reviews did acknowledge, but this all still falls under the assumptive guise that these films portray black experiences to which no one else can relate and that simply isn’t accurate.
Looking at these incidents, it was evident to me that identifying something as a “black movie” means two things in the world of film: Tyler Perry and race baiting. I personally wouldn’t pay $16 for either of those experiences and I’m black, so I’m not surprised white people don’t run to theaters to watch these movies when they’re framed as they are. Forbes reviewer Scott Mendleson said it best when he wrote, “It’s well-past time we noticed that black audiences like seeing themselves onscreen. More importantly, and this is arguably the key, they really like seeing black characters onscreen in starring roles in films that don’t necessarily revolve around racially-based adversity.” I would go a step further to argue white people like seeing black characters on screen in starring roles that don’t necessarily revolve around racially-based adversity. Hello Will Smith and Denzel Washington! I personally saw “The Best Man” and it’s sequel as introspective explorations of the male ego more than anything else, and yes, what appealed to me even more was that in experiencing that, the people on-screen looked like men I know. You could call that the icing on the cake, I suppose, and I won’t apologize for that. White people have had their cake and been eating it for years, let’s let someone else get a piece.
If America wants us all to buy into this whole “we are one” ideal when it comes to diversity, they’re going to have to do some heavy PR when it comes to cinema. These reviews almost pull a black card when there is none and alienate movie goers who would see so-called “black films” if they weren’t being set up to see black pride fists and women dressed as men before they even get a chance to see what the flicks are really about. And while I’m not one to ever want to pander to white audiences, I can certainly appreciate more of their dollars being directed towards black filmmakers, which will in turn allow more black actors to be employed and more of said movies to be made– and hopefully some diversity lessons instilled as well.
All that said, “Best Man Holiday” is an excellent romantic comedy and “12 Years a Slave” is a phenomenal historical drama. Labeling either of these flicks with a watered down title such as “black movies” does them no justice and it’s high time we stopped doing so — at least in the company of “others.”